For my STEP project, I studied abroad in Costa Rica. For two weeks our class had traditional on-campus lecture about Costa Rica’s tropical climate, geological history, and government policies to preserve its unique environment. We learned what made Costa Rica stand out among other countries in their efforts at reducing pollution and preserving natural habitats in preparation for our trip. After two weeks, we spent ten days in-country travelling to various national parks to witness for ourselves how Costa Rica values their natural resources and how it has become a part of their culture.

As someone who has never been out of the country, being immersed in a completely different culture from my own broadened my perspective of just how different people’s lives can be. I have a greater appreciation for what limited Spanish I was able to use, and realize that developing my Spanish-speaking skills is something that I want to continue to do outside of the classroom. This experience also made me realize the high standard of living that I take for granted, and recognize aspects of my own culture that I never would have thought about had I not been outside of the United States. Looking forward, I want to learn more about other cultures throughout the world through more international travel

Some of the key activities that prompted those changes weren’t necessarily the highlights of the trip. Kayaking, white water rafting, ziplining, visiting hot springs, and hiking were fun activities that everyone looked forward to, it was the everyday experiences that truly changed my perspective. For example, simply observing how locals lived their everyday lives through their jobs, modes of transportation, and interactions with each other. Before my trip, I didn’t think about what it would be like to work on a banana plantation, or collect recyclables for a job. In Tortuguero, locals used the canals the same way we use roads – boating from place to place along the waterfront, pulling up to docks instead of driveways, transporting goods in their canoes.

Despite my limited Spanish skills, I was able to employ what I knew to converse with locals, make purchases, and ask questions. Compared to my first attempt at speaking, by the end of the trip I was confident in asking questions when ordering food (due to having allergies), where the bathroom was, and even basic directions when exploring towns. While we had an english-speaking tour guide for the entirety of the trip, I found myself wanting to speak more freely with local people without being reliant on another person for translation. I now realize the importance of knowing how to speak another language, especially when that language is one of the most widely-spoken in the world. After this trip, I want to continue using Spanish in my everyday life to further improve my language skills.

Despite having a guide, having some unstructured moments of exploration were some of the most interesting, and probably my favorite part of the trip. Even if the town itself is oriented towards tourists, having the freedom to discover interesting areas on my own allowed me to learn about the lives of its people and the workings of the surrounding area. I got to see what kind of houses people lived in, how to commuted to work, what kind of jobs they had, where they went to school, etc. It opened my eyes to the differences between my everyday life in the United States and what living in Costa Rica would be like.

In addition, getting to see the unified efforts of both the people and government at reducing waste and reusing materials made me question the efforts of our own government. While there are certainly differences in the structure of our country compared to Costa Rica, if they are able to employ such innovative practices, why can’t we? After witnessing just how much the concept of sustainability permeates all aspects of life in Costa Rica, I want to implement more of these ideas into my own life, as well as the lives of others.

Looking back, this trip has drastically changed the way I view my everyday life here in Ohio, as well as the larger workings of our country as a whole. Although I only spent ten days out of the United States, I realize just how much I take for granted in my daily life. Things like flushing toilet paper, having soy milk for coffee, and air conditioning never seemed that important to me until they weren’t available. More importantly, I realize how much more our government can do towards creating a more sustainable way of living. Increased recycling efforts, expanding renewable energy, and preserving natural habitats are all strategies that are within the ability of the United States, and yet are not prioritized in our society. I hope that in the future, I can take what I’ve learned through this experience to help spread that message of sustainability.